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Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Sheep

Here in London, we probably don't think much about sheep, do we?
Okay, we might wear wool clothes, or eat curry mutton or roast lamb,
and we might use a lanolin hand-cream when our hands are dry and chapped, but by and large, we don't think much about where these things come from.
About sheep.

It's very different when I go and visit my family in Sussex,
because my brother is a shepherd,
and so sheep loom pretty large in our lives down there.
They are silly creatures, really –
very few brains!
Usually they follow a leader, and the trick is to become their leader.
An Australian sheep-farming friend of mine likes to enter her sheepdogs in trials, and she comments that
“Sheepdog trialling is a tricky sport.
Sheep have this amazing ability to bring Humans and Dogs completely undone.
Experienced triallers know that no matter how good the dog and how good the handler it only takes ONE sheep to bring the whole show down.”
Yes, that makes enormous sense to me.
One sheep finds a hole in the fence, and they are all through it,
and have all wandered off where they ought not to be....

These days, shepherds don't stay with their flocks 24/7 the way they used to;
time was, they would often live in caravans on the Downs with their sheep, who could wander almost at will during the day, and then be fenced in, or “folded” into a corral with hazel hurdles, at night.
The shepherd lived there with them, and knew the sheep intimately.

That's less easy to do these days, with bigger flocks;
and the development of electric fences means that there is no need for the shepherd to be there 24/7,
although during the lambing season, my brother will get up several times in the night to check the ewes,
and has been known to sleep on a camp-bed in the shed with them!

In Bible times, it was more traditional;
the sheep would be folded at night, gathered into fenced-off areas,
and the shepherd would lie down at the entrance to guard the sheep.
And in our reading, Jesus likens himself to that shepherd:
“I am the gate for the sheep!”
He contrasts himself with those who climb over the hurdles,
or who get into the fold some other way –
the thieves, those who would steal the sheep.
Or perhaps in our day we might think of people's dogs left to run loose –
you wouldn't believe, or perhaps you would, the amount of damage a couple of dogs can do.
Not good.

Sheep do tend to know their shepherd.
My brother's sheep are fairly brainless, as sheep go,
but they do eventually learn to recognise his car,
and that of the other shepherds, and their response to those cars is quite different from their response to, say, my father’s car.
They know when they see those particular cars, they’ll get fed, or looked at, or
moved to a new pasture, or something nice.

And Jesus tells us, in our reading, that the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

So I wonder, how is it that we know the Shepherd's voice,
and what does it mean in practice?

How is it, then, that we know the Shepherd's voice.
I think there are two reasons.
The first is that He speaks to us;
the second is that we listen to Him.

He speaks to us.
Well, in one sense that's somewhat of a no-brainer, as the Americans so graphically put it.
We are told, from our earliest days as Christians,
that God speaks to us through the Bible,
and through other people,
and even, although we must be careful, through our own imaginations.
But being told it and knowing it seem to be two different things!
Of course, there are times when we hear the Shepherd's voice so clearly, times when we know we are His, held in His arms –

or round his neck, the way shepherd today will still carry a young sheep.

We have all known times when we hear the Shepherd's voice so clearly,
but, of course, we have all known those other times, too;
times when God seems far away, when our prayers go no further than the ceiling, when, so far from hearing God's voice, we wonder whether, in fact, our whole faith has been based on a delusion!
I'm sure we've all been there and done that, too!

Now, it's traditional to be told that when those times happen, it is our fault.
We have stopped listening, we are told, we have gone our own way,
we have sinned.
And, of course, some of the time that is exactly what has happened,
even if some preachers do make it sound like God isn't talking to us any more because we've offended him!
I think, rather, it is we who cannot hear the voice of God when we are uncomfortable in God's presence.
But usually when that has happened we know that is what the matter is,
and sooner or later we admit this to ourselves, and to God,
and things come all right again.

But some of the time, with the best will in the world,
we know we have not sinned,
and it really doesn't seem to be our fault.
Times when everything goes pear-shaped,
and you wonder where on earth God is in the middle of it all?
And part of you knows that this is exactly where God is –
in the middle of it all –
but that part is operating on sheer faith.
You can't sense God's presence, or hear the Shepherd's voice at all,
no matter how hard you listen.
It happens to all of us, probably more often than we care to admit.
Again, preachers have various explanations for it,
and you've probably heard them as often as I have.
That God is testing our faith, as though God didn't know how strong our faith actually is.
Actually, of course, God does know, but we don't necessarily,
and it can be a salutary shock to us!

The thing is, of course, that we don't understand, can't understand, why these things happen.
God is God, not just another person like us, and it's not possible to understand.
We don't know why we suddenly seem to lose the ability to hear God's voice, and why, even worse, we suddenly seem to lose all sense of God, and seem to simply be going through the motions.

The fact that it's almost universal, that almost every Christian goes through it from time to time must mean that it is normal.
But I don't know why it happens,
and I don't altogether accept the explanations as to why.
I think it's just "part of the human condition", or, if you prefer, "part of the mystery of faith", and we must accept it as such.

There are times when we just don't understand what God is doing, and that's okay, too.
Some years ago now, there was an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease,
and as part of the effort to control this,
you were only allowed to move your livestock to another field with government permission.
My brother's sheep became stuck in their field,
long after they had exhausted all the grass,
long after they should have been moved.
And they wanted out, and couldn't understand why they were not moved, to the point that they would run up to any and every car going past, asking to be moved, even cars they would normally ignore like my father's.
My brother had a very good reason that year for not moving his sheep to a new field, no matter how much he wanted to move them, and no matter how much they wanted to be moved.
He wasn't allowed to by the Government, because of foot-and-mouth precautions.
And you try explaining that to sheep!
And since God is even further beyond us than we are from real sheep, how could we be expected to understand what constraints He has?

Sometimes, of course, the matter seems urgent, when we want to know what God wants us to do, and yet God simply doesn't seem to answer.
The more we pray, the less we know what to do, and the quieter God seems to get.
It's so frustrating!
And we rage and rampage and know no peace.

In our reading from Acts, the believers were going through one of those times when God was so close to them, when new believers were coming in all the time, when life was simply ideal.
They lived together, they shared everything in common.
It was idyllic, and, of course, it couldn't last.
Ethnic tensions crept in between the Jews and the Greeks;
there was that dreadful time when Ananias and his wife pretended they'd given their all to the church, when they hadn't at all.
It wouldn't have mattered –
nobody was making them give anything at all, never mind all they had –
but to lie about it?
They paid a fearful penalty.
The community was wonderful while it lasted, but it didn't, couldn't, last.
I wonder whether they felt they were failures when it all broke up, when they started to be persecuted, when things basically went wrong –
or did they accept that things happen, and that God still loved them?

Jesus says "My sheep know My voice".
It is a given.
There are no ifs, buts and ands.
He says "My sheep know My voice".
We do hear His voice, and know it.
Even when we think we don't.
Often, when seeking guidance, we know in our hearts that a given path might probably be wrong.
Or wrong for us, if not intrinsically wrong.

We, of course, behave like sheep from time to time.
We think we do not hear the voice of the Shepherd, so we rush after any and every passing thing that looks as though it might be the Shepherd.
Just as my brother's sheep ran after my father’s car,
hoping that we were coming to move them to a better field.
Is this the right Shepherd, we ask ourselves, rushing to find out.
And sometimes, in the process, we get ourselves badly lost.
We find that the better field was no such thing.

But remember our Lord's story about the lost sheep?
When we do get lost, we can trust the Good Shepherd to pull on Barbour and Wellies forthwith, and head out to find us.
"No one will snatch them out of my hand," Jesus said.
So even if we, or someone we care about, has gone off down the wrong track and got lost, we can trust the Good Shepherd to come and find us again.

Because the Good Shepherd, Jesus tells us, is come "that they may have life and have it abundantly".

So when we get to a time where we seem not to hear His voice,
a time when we look round and He seems to have vanished, let's not panic.
Let's not assume it was all our fault –
it might have been, but not necessarily.
Let's not abandon all idea of Christianity, of churchgoing, of being God's person.
Instead, let's sit and wait, calling out to God in prayer, but accepting the silence, trusting that one day the Good Shepherd will come and find us, and say
"There you are!
Come on, I'll take you back to the rest!" Amen.